Updated: May 8
A few semesters ago, a confident young man sat in the first row of my introductory management communication course. He was a valuable contributor to the class and, like most of my students, he was a motivated high-achiever. However, when it came time to deliver his first graded presentation, he froze. He appeared anxious from the start: the way he walked to the front of the room, his body language as he held index cards in his hands, and the uncertainty in his voice when he began to speak.
A few minutes into the presentation, he stopped speaking. His mind had gone blank. At moments like these, which happen almost every semester, I try to say something supportive and suggest to the speaker that they take a deep breath. But, before I could say a word, the student gave up and walked back to his seat.
Perhaps you have a public speaking nightmare story or maybe you empathize with the young man in this story because you’ve had a similar experience. In the course of teaching thousands of students and meeting individually with many who struggle to present well, I’ve gained important insight into what people do wrong in the presentation preparation process and developed some practical suggestions for preparing better.
Presentation Preparation Mistakes
After many years of studying, practicing, and teaching presentation skills, I've made two important observations about common mistakes people make while preparing to present.
Spending Too Much Time On The Wrong Preparation Activity
Research suggests individuals with higher levels of communication apprehension (CA) employ a less effective presentation preparation process than those with low communication apprehension. Those with high CA spend more time preparing speaking notes, but less time on rehearsal activities. It shouldn’t be a surprise that individuals with an aversion for presenting avoid the preparation activities most closely related to public speaking. Instead, they spend their time where they feel most comfortable.
Preparing For A Presentation Like It’s A Test
Many of my students prepare for presentations like they prepare for high-stakes tests. Surprisingly, many high performing students develop some bad habits. During high school and even in university they have been able to wait until the last minute to study for an exam. They report putting off learning the material and cramming the evening before the test.
Most seem to realize this is a short-sighted strategy. The immediate reward is a good grade on a test, but when it comes time to try to use the information again, it’s not there. Since the external reward drives behavior, they understandably use the same approach when preparing for a presentation.
Learning experts refer to this approach as mass practice. When applied to presentation preparation it might involve reading a script over and over again to yourself or silently clicking through a slide deck. The prevailing wisdom is to “practice, practice, practice.” But how you practice is important. Ultimately, many students learn that following the same process that has resulted in high test grades often results in poor presentation performance.
Spending time on the wrong activities and mass practice are both time management problems. Moreover, the unfortunate reality is that those who are most nervous about presenting tend to employ these approaches because of negative past experiences and then the problem persists. Their experiences reinforce an identity that they are not good at presenting when, in reality, they can improve by addressing their preparation process.
Develop Your Own Preparation Process
One of the underlying goals of my courses and workshops is to help others update their processes to serve their personal goals. Even for those who have been happy with their prior presentation performance, many realize their old process might not be sufficient to help them get to where they want to go.
For our purposes today, we are going to imagine you have already defined the purpose of your presentation, analyzed your audience, collected the appropriate information, organized and outlined your ideas, and put some thought into how you will begin and end your remarks.
At this point in the process, I recommend stopping before you think you have a finished product. This feels a bit counterintuitive and knowing when to stop can be difficult. Let’s walk through the steps from this point:
Say your presentation out loud. Speaking the words will help you identify areas that need more attention. Also, time yourself. Since most presentations have a time constraint, this step allows you to see if you have too little or too much content. Expect this to feel clunky and incomplete. That’s okay.
Fine tune your outline. Do you have time to include more details or do you need to cut back? What areas are you communicating the way you intend to, and what areas need to be revised?
Rehearse your presentation out loud again. Complete the same process until you come close to your target time. As you get closer to what you feel is a presentation you would be proud to deliver, pay careful attention to two things:
a. The way you write might not sound like something you would say. Don’t cement what you have written into your memory; instead, focus on communicating the idea using words and sentence structures that sound like spoken discourse (e.g., opt for familiar words and shorter sentences).
b. The flow of the presentation will make sense to you because you wrote it, but will it make sense to your audience? Consider areas where transitions could help your listener follow along. Listening is difficult and clear presentations include additional verbal cues.
A correct way to prepare for a presentation does not exist. Your goal should be to find a process that works for you. The following list explores some ideas and considerations to make at this point in the process.
Record Yourself: You might consider recording yourself giving the presentation. Most people do not enjoy listening to themselves speak, but doing so can be helpful to listen for rate, volume, pitch, emphasis, upticks, pauses, and other vocal qualities that need adjusting. Watching video of yourself present can help you become aware of your posture, gestures, movement, facial expressions, eye contact, and other important nonverbal elements. If recording isn’t an option, practicing in front of a mirror can provide helpful feedback.
Ditch Your Script: As your work through this rehearsal process, wean yourself off of your notes. Some notes are usually acceptable, but most audiences will not appreciate being read to. You might begin your rehearsal with a full script, but as depicted in the visual below, your goal should be to work toward using as few notes as possible.
Your goal should not be to memorize your remarks, but to become familiar enough with the content so you can authentically connect with your audience while you present. As you rehearse, don’t place a high cognitive load on your brain to try to say the presentation the exact same way each time. Instead, vary your word choice and speak naturally like you would in a thoughtful conversation.
Prepare Visuals: If your presentation calls for visuals, consider deciding what you want to say before you open your slide software. If presenting with visuals, you are less likely to require speaking notes. Be sure to rehearse with your visuals to get your timing down. The transitions between slides should be fluid and not draw attention away from the point you are trying to make. In other words, the visuals are there to support you; they are not the presentation. [For advice on preparing slide decks, check out my eCornell course]
Solicit Feedback: You should ask for feedback at various stages in this process, and the feedback might come from different people. For example, you might turn to someone with subject matter expertise as you finalize your content, someone who has an eye for slide design as you prepare your visuals, and someone who gives thoughtful feedback about nonverbal communication when you are ready to rehearse in front of others.
Dress Rehearsal: At least one day prior to your scheduled presentation, try to practice the presentation in conditions similar to the actual event. Simulating the live experience will help you feel more confident the day of the presentation. Get comfortable with the space. Consider your eye contact, movement, and gestures. If you are using technology or delivering the presentation virtually, do everything you plan to do on the day of the presentation. Leave nothing to chance. This is a final opportunity to receive feedback from trusted colleagues and coaches.
Anticipate Objections: Some audiences will ask you questions while you present or save them until the end. Either way, you should anticipate the questions and practice your responses.
Prepare Your Mind and Body: Get enough sleep the night before a big presentation, stay hydrated, and monitor your thoughts.
As you develop your own presentation preparation process, you’ll adjust it for different types of presentations. The higher the stakes the more important it will be for you to apply the ideas in the list above. However, most of the time it will not be feasible or practical to apply each of these ideas. The decision you will have to make is how to spend the time you do have. Focusing on your purpose, audience, content, and organization of your remarks should usually take precedence over rehearsing.
But, let’s step back and think about how deciding what you want to say early enough allows time for you to increase your confidence. Instead of preparing for a presentation like many of my students prepare for a test, let’s wrap up by exploring how an effective presentation preparation process includes activities required for deep learning.
Learning Requires Sustained Effort
Beginning your preparation the evening before a high stakes presentation usually does not lead to excellent results. Excellent communication takes practice. You must break your preparation into separate blocks of time and space them out. The time you wait between rehearsal sessions should be long enough that it doesn’t feel like you are mindlessly repeating yourself. Forgetting a little content between rehearsals sessions is a good thing. Research suggests that sleep is important for memory consolidation, so spreading your rehearsals over multiple days may be the best way to familiarize yourself with your content (note my word choice of familiarize, not memorize).
Vary Your Practice
Within my recommendations, you may have also noticed that it’s best to vary your practice. This means you might practice alone at home, with various people, in various locations, and under different conditions.
It’s natural to want to practice a presentation from beginning to end, but as you get closer to presentation day, you’ll know which sections of the presentation need your attention most. Focus your attention on those sections. You could even practice the presentation in a different order. Finally, if you are using visuals, practice the slides where you feel less confident. Focusing on your trouble spots will save you time, especially if you have a long presentation.
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You might be thinking that this is a lot of work. It is. And this is what the best speakers do to prepare. They are often so good that you’re left thinking they must be naturally gifted speakers. Don’t kid yourself, and don’t let anyone kid you; the best speakers all have a presentation preparation process that involves practice.